Let's start with this simple political fact: There was NEVER going to be a good time for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns.
As we have noted before, Romney's financial life as a very wealthy person is significantly more exotic than the average person he needs to vote for him; that he made almost $14 million in 2011 (and $21 million in 2010) without drawing any salary is all the confirmation you need of that fact.
So, as soon as the Romney team made the strategic decision during the Republican primary process to hold the line on releasing no more than two past years of returns prior to the general election, they knew this day would come -- a day when Democrats would get a chance to sift through a window into his full financial portfolio for evidence that the caricature they have painted of him (rich, entitled businessman) was right.
All the Romney campaign could control was when that day came. They chose today. But why?
Ask the campaign and, even when offered anonymity to speak candidly, top aides to Romney insist the returns were finished and signed by Romney yesterday and filed today, making today the obvious day to release them.
Of course, if you believe the calculation of when to drop the 2011 returns -- as well as a summary of the past 20 years of tax rates the Romneys paid -- was entirely without political motive then we have a bridge to sell you.
There's a number of reasons for why Romney chose today to swallow this uncomfortable political pill -- some logistical but mostly strategic.
First, the logistical. Romney had said previously he would release his 2011 return before the Oct. 15 deadline and before the first general election presidential debate, which is set for Oct. 3. This release meets both of those criteria.
Now, for the strategic.
1. It's Friday: The phrase "Friday news dump" has not become common parlance in Washington political news circles by accident. The reality of human nature -- and, yes, we are including reporters in that "human" category -- is that our attention span starts to wane as the weekend approaches. The story will get less attention late today than it would have on, say, a Tuesday morning. Fact.
2. It's already been a bad week: Romney's "47 percent" secret video comments ensured that the Republican presidential nominee had already lost this week on the big political scoreboard. (Heck, Romney had already won the Fix's "Worst Week in Washington" before the news of the tax return release broke this afternoon.) Political strategy 101 dictates that the best time to dump other bad new — at least in terms of political impact — is when things already are going badly so that it all gets wrapped into a single big story and you can then move on. Will Romney's tax returns be talked about on the Sunday chat show circuit? Absolutely. But is that any worse from a political perspective than those same Sunday shows being dominated by chatter about why Romney hasn't run a better campaign? Bad is bad. There are few gradations politically between bad and really bad.
3. The first debate is 12 days away: If Romney had waited to release his 2011 returns until, say, next Friday the first debate would be just 5 days away -- ensuring that there would be some (extended) discussion of them in it. And that's not what Romney wants. By releasing them today, it allows almost two weeks to pass before the debate, an amount of time that lets the GOP nominee dismiss the story as "old news" if and when Obama or one of the debate moderators brings it up.
The best case scenario for Romney on his tax returns (and his wealth more broadly) is that it takes up a single news cycle as people process the data in it and then move on. By dropping the 2011 return on a Friday afternoon, the Romney team is hoping that by Monday morning the political world has had its fill of the story and is back to talking about the economy and President Obama's handling of it.
Let's see if they're right.
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